Lockdown in South Africa will be wasted unless testing is drastically increased

South Africa has to conduct mass coronavirus testing, isolate infected individuals, and run efficient contact tracing to successfully fight COVID-19. However, not close to enough is being done in this regard.

Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, said that unless testing is scaled up significantly the lockdown will be mostly wasted.

Speaking to eNCA, Madhi said the screening and testing of only people who show symptoms of the virus is not enough to effectively reduce the rate of infection.

This is because high viral loads of SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus) in the upper airway occur in pre-symptomatic and possibly asymptomatic people.

What this means is that people who show no symptoms of being infected can still infect those around them.

To address this problem, Madhi said around 1% of the population – 600,000 people – should be tested during the lockdown period.

“The testing can’t be spread out over four to five months. This will diminish the ability to respond to the pandemic at a point in time,” said Madhi.

This figure is unrealistic, though. The country has only conducted 80,085 COVID-19 tests since the outbreak started.

The number of daily tests ranged between 1,225 and 5,098 in April. This is well below the 20,000 tests which should have been conducted per day to reach the 600,000 target this month.

Madhi said the target for the rest of the lockdown period should be between 15,000 and 20,000 tests.

The chart below shows how the number of daily tests (in blue) over the past month stacks up against the required number of tests (in orange).

Turnaround time must be increased

Apart from increasing the number of tests, the turnaround time for getting test results must also be improved.

It can currently take days before a person is informed they have tested positive for the coronavirus. During this time, they can infect many people.

Madhi said test turnaround times should be improved to within 12 to 24 hours.

After a person has been confirmed to have the virus, they should immediately be isolated and people who they have been in contact with should be traced.

Infected individuals should be isolated for at least 14 days to ensure they do not infect others.

Wasting the lockdown

Unless the target of 15,000 to 20,000 coronavirus tests over the next two-and-a-half weeks is met, Madhi said the lockdown will be wasted.

“If we don’t do this, we are really not going to benefit from what has happened over the past three weeks and what will happen for the next two weeks,” he said.

He said the main purpose of the lockdown is to identify infectious cases, put them in isolation, trace their contacts in an efficient manner, and also put their contacts in isolation.

If this does not happen, Madhi warns that very little would have been gained in fighting the virus through the lockdown.

Shabir Madhi interview

Now read: Smart Lockdown proposal for South Africa

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Lockdown in South Africa will be wasted unless testing is drastically increased